Portugal’s COVID-19 nightmare eases but end of lockdown still out of sight

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – While the number of COVID-19 cases in Portugal is falling, the the far slower decline in hospitalizations and intensive care patients has left Lisbon residents resigned to the nationwide lockdown lasting for many more weeks.

“I’m a bit optimistic but we cannot think everything is fine,” said Ana Maria, 76, as she walked around a Lisbon neighborhood. “People must continue to be careful. The lockdown should continue for a bit longer so that we can get rid of this once and for all.”

Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million people, faced its toughest battle against the coronavirus pandemic last month. For weeks it had the world’s worst surge.

The nightmare has eased with the lockdown, with daily case and death tolls falling rapidly to just 63 deaths and 1,032 new cases on Tuesday – levels last seen in October when businesses were still open.

But the number of people in hospital remains around double the level authorities say must be reached to alleviate measures. A lockdown put in place on Jan. 15, shutting non-essential services and schools, is expected to last until at least the end of March.

“It is going well but the lockdown isn’t going to end for now,” Antonio Formiga, 58, said as he stood outside the bakery where he works. “We thought it would even if at a slower pace. We really need it (to end) because the business is reaching its limit.”

Health experts warned that lifting the lockdown too soon could lead to a rise in cases caused by the variant initially discovered in Britain, currently responsible for almost half of the country’s cases.

Another surge would be catastrophic for a fragile health system.

Germany sent on Tuesday a replacement team of military doctors and nurses to take over from the first deployment sent three weeks ago to prop up Lisbon’s under resourced hospitals.

“The costs of this endeavor are high but when it comes to European solidarity that’s unimportant,” German Ambassador Martin Ney said at the military base.

Portugal’s total number of infections is 799,106, and the total death toll stands at 16,086 people.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira, Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua, Editing by Victoria Waldersee and Angus MacSwan)

Planet Earth its quietest in decades as lockdowns reduce seismic noise

ZURICH (Reuters) – Earth had its quietest period in decades during 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced human activity and its impact on the planet’s crust, according to scientists working on a global study.

An international group of seismologists from 33 countries measured a drop of up to 50% in so-called ambient noise generated by humans travelling and factories humming after lockdowns came into force around the world.

The team, which included experts from the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich, a university, measured lower noise levels at 185 of the 268 seismic stations analyzed around the world.

Urban ambient noise fell by up to 50% at some measuring stations during the tightest lockdown weeks, as buses and train services were reduced, aircraft grounded and factories shuttered.

This made it much quieter than Christmas, traditionally the quietest time of the year.

“The weeks during lockdown were the quietest period we have on record,” said seismologist John Clinton, referring to data archives covering the last 20 years.

“With human noise always increasing, it is highly likely that it was the quietest period for a very long time.”

The experts, led by Thomas Lecocq from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, were able to track the “wave of quiet” around the world as lockdown came first in China, then Italy, before spreading across the rest of Europe and onto the Americas.

Lower background noise during lockdowns also means small earthquakes that otherwise would not be observed have been detected in some places.

Small tremors allow us to improve our understanding of the seismic hazard, said scientist Frederick Massin, and also help assess the probability of larger earthquakes in the future.

“This was an unprecedented opportunity. There’s no way we would normally be able to do this kind of experiment,” said Massin.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Switzerland plans cautious easing of pandemic lockdown from March

By John Revill and John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland plans to make its first “cautious steps” towards ending its coronavirus lockdown next month, the government said on Wednesday, contrasting with neighbors that are sticking with many restrictions.

In the first step, shops, museums and libraries are due to reopen from March 1. Zoos, gardens and sports facilities will also be reopened, with a final decision to come on Feb. 24.

Ministers have been caught being caught between health experts supporting stricter limits and struggling businesses calling for a reopening, but an easing in the number of infections has allowed the government to change course.

“The efforts of the last few months are now paying off, the population has been very disciplined,” said Health Minister Alain Berset.

“New infections have halved within a month, so the situation is not so bad. We would all like to do more activities again, such as sports.”

With the initial reopening, private events with up to 15 people would also be allowed, said the government, up from the current limit of five.

Switzerland’s reopening contrasts with neighboring Austria which will decide on March 1 on a potential loosening of pandemic restrictions that happen around Easter, at the earliest.

“We’re taking a risk, but we think that’s acceptable as long as everybody plays along,” Berset told a press conference in Bern.

Additional easing from April 1 could follow if infections remain low, he added.

Measures to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic will push Switzerland into a 15.8 billion Swiss franc ($17.59 billion) deficit for 2020, due mainly to higher spending and lower tax receipts.

Still, the government said it would expand its spending to deal with the pandemic, which has so far claimed 9,128 lives.

It has decided to expand support package for large companies hit hard by the crisis, ramping up a compensation scheme to 10 billion francs, from 5 billion francs previously.

($1 = 0.8981 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by John Revill and John Miller, editing by Mihcael Shields)

UK PM Johnson wants ‘cautious but irreversible’ path out of COVID-19 lockdown

By Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he would plot a cautious but irreversible path out of the COVID-19 lockdown this week after the vaccination of 15 million vulnerable people.

With nearly a quarter of the United Kingdom’s population now inoculated with a first dose of a COVID vaccine in a little over two months, Johnson is under pressure from some lawmakers and businesses to reopen the shuttered economy.

“We’ve got to be very prudent and what we want to see is progress that is cautious, but irreversible,” Johnson told reporters. “If we possibly can, we’ll be setting out dates.”

“If because of the rate of infection, we have to push off something a little bit to the right – delay it for a little bit – we won’t hesitate to do that.”

Johnson, due to set the path out of lockdown on Feb. 22, said the rates of infection were still high and too many people were still dying.

Asked if he would ensure schools reopened on March 8, Johnson said he would do everything he could to ensure that.

If many people get infected, there would be a high risk of mutation in the virus and higher risk of it spreading to older and more vulnerable groups, he said.

The biggest and swiftest global vaccine rollout in history is seen as the best chance of exiting the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed 2.4 million people, tipped the global economy into its worst peacetime slump since the Great Depression, and upended normal life for billions.

The United Kingdom has the world’s fifth-worst official death toll – currently 117,166 – after the United States, Brazil, Mexico and India.

VACCINE PASSPORTS?

Britain has vaccinated 15.062 million people with a first dose and 537,715 with a second dose, the fastest rollout per capita of any large country. Hancock said he expected vaccine supplies to increase as manufacturing accelerated.

An influential group of lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party is urging an end to the lockdown as soon as the most vulnerable nine groups are vaccinated. They want no more rules beyond May 1.

“We’re all filled with sorrow for the people we’ve lost, the harms that we’ve suffered but we don’t honor those we’ve loved and lost by wrecking the rest of our lives,” lawmaker Steve Baker said. “We’ve got to find a way to rebuild our society and our economy and our prospects, our livelihoods.”

Britain is speaking to other countries about giving its citizens certificates showing they have been vaccinated so that they can travel abroad in the future to countries that require them, Johnson said.

“That’s going to be very much in the mix, down the road I think that is going to happen,” Johnson said, referring to such certificates. “What I don’t think we will have in this country is, as it were, vaccination passports to allow you to go to the pub, or something like that.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Editing by Peter Graff, Nick Macfie and Bernadette Baum)

Germany extends lockdown until March 7

By Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany will extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until March 7, though schools and hair salons may open sooner, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 federal states agreed on Wednesday.

The number of new daily infections in Germany has been falling, prompting some regional leaders to push for a timetable to ease the lockdown, but concerns are growing about the impact of more infectious variants of the virus on case numbers.

“We know that these mutants are a reality now, and with that it (the infection rate) will increase. The question is how quickly it will increase,” Merkel told journalists in a news conference.

Under the agreement, some exceptions will be made to a strict lockdown which has been in place since mid-December.

Hairdressers will be allowed to reopen from March 1 and individual states can decide on how to re-start school classes. Merkel, who has adopted a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, has said nurseries and primary schools take priority.

The rest of the economy can start to re-open gradually where the spread of the virus drops to no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

On Wednesday, that number was 68, having fallen from a high near 200 in late December. It was last below 50 in October.

BUSINESS ANGST

Some business and industry associations have pushed for an easing of the restrictions as soon as possible, citing the damage inflicted on Europe’s biggest economy, which shrank by 5% last year.

“The situation is serious,” the BDI industry and BDA employers groups said. “We urgently call for an easing plan.”

However, the Ifo economic think-tank said a lockdown extension until mid-March was bearable and that a swifter easing that triggered a surge in cases could create greater damage.

Germany reported 8,072 new cases on Wednesday and a further 813 deaths, bringing the total death toll to 62,969.

(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman)

Austria to isolate province in EU’s worst outbreak of South African coronavirus variant

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is stepping up its response to the European Union’s biggest outbreak of the so-called South African coronavirus variant in its Alpine province of Tyrol, by requiring those leaving Tyrol to show a negative test result as of Friday.

A year ago Tyrol, a winter sports hotspot bordering Germany, Italy and Switzerland, was the scene of one of Europe’s worst instances of virus spreading at the ski resort of Ischgl. Thousands of tourists from across Europe were infected.

Despite that damaging episode, the provincial government has resisted pressure from Vienna to do more to curb the new variant that threatens Austria’s vaccination plans. After days of fraught negotiation, the national government said on Tuesday it would screen those leaving Tyrol, starting in three days.

“We have a responsibility throughout Austria to fight mutations against which vaccinations are less or maybe barely effective,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, a day after his government asked the public not to travel to Tyrol unless they have to.

Police will require anyone leaving the province to show a negative coronavirus test result no more than 48 hours old, and the measure will last 10 days. It will not apply to East Tyrol, which is separated from the rest of the province, or to children.

So far 293 cases of the variant have been confirmed in Tyrol, and 129 of them are currently active, the government said. The authorities have been unable to explain how it arrived in the province where lockdown measures have kept hotels closed to tourists, though ski lifts are open.

As in much of the EU, Austria’s national vaccination plan relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine and a recent study has shaken confidence in its effectiveness against the South African variant, showing it had little effect against mild disease caused by that variant.

“Almost 50% of Europeans will be vaccinated with AstraZeneca in the coming months. If this drug is less effective then we must be aware that these mutations, that these variants, are extremely dangerous for us,” Kurz said.

On Monday, his government had loosened Austria’s third coronavirus lockdown, letting non-essential shops reopen, including in Tyrol, despite stubbornly high infections nationally.

The opposition Social Democrats criticized the bickering between the provincial and national governments, both of which are led by Kurz’s conservatives, saying in a statement they had “learned nothing from Ischgl”.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Alex Richardson and Grant McCool)

Dutch PM Rutte confirms lockdown to last until at least March

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday that most of the lockdown measures in the Netherlands, many of which have been in place since October, will remain in place for weeks due to fears over a surge in cases as a result of variant strains.

Rutte’s government is still weighing whether to continue an evening curfew that has triggered rioting in some Dutch cities beyond next week, the prime minister told a press briefing.

The government announced earlier this week that primary schools and daycares will reopen on Feb. 8, adding that it is also looking at possibly reopening secondary schools but that will not happen before March.

“It is inescapable to extend the current lockdown almost entirely until at least March 2,” Rutte said, despite falling case numbers in the Netherlands.

“A third wave is inevitably coming our way,” he said, pointing to new virus strains which are more infectious.

The Netherlands has been in what the government calls a strict lockdown since mid-December and last month imposed a curfew, the country’s first since World War Two, which sparked riots.

The National Institute for Health (RIVM) said on Tuesday there had been 28,628 COVID-19 cases in the past week, down 20% from the week before and the lowest level since lockdown measures were introduced in October.

But this week’s decline “would have been greater without the new variants of the virus that have entered the Netherlands, especially the British Variant,” the RIVM said in a statement.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said on Monday that half of the cases were being caused by the new variant as of Jan. 26, up from around a third the week before. The government fears it may cause a new wave ahead of March 17 elections.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Chris Reese and Alexander Smith)

Portugal extends lockdown as COVID-19 brings health service to its knees

By Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s parliament extended a nationwide lockdown on Tuesday until mid-February, as Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted blame for the world’s worst coronavirus surge, with hospitals on the verge of being overrun.

With 10 million people, Portugal reported a record 303 COVID-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases on Thursday, and now has the world’s highest per capita seven-day averages of both new cases and deaths.

Costa told TVI broadcaster overnight the situation was “not bad, but terrible … and we’ll face this worst moment for a few more weeks”.

The situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictive measures between Christmas and the end of the year, he said, with the country now grappling with a virulent new variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

“There were certainly errors: often the way I transmitted the message to the Portuguese … and, when the recipient of the message did not understand the message, then it is the messenger’s fault,” he said. The lockdown should, in principle, start reducing infection numbers next week, he added.

Some hospitals are running out of beds, others see dwindling oxygen supplies, and doctors and nurses are over-stretched. Staff at the Cascais Hospital, near Lisbon, told Reuters they were exhausted. “There is no end in sight,” one nurse said.

The new lockdown, which came into force on Jan. 15 for the first time since the initial wave of the pandemic, will last at least until Feb. 14. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

“Unfortunately we are dealing with a disease that surprises us every day and we do not give up… we continue to fight every day,” Health Minister Marta Temido told parliament before lawmakers voted to extend the lockdown.

Germany said on Wednesday it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess what kind of support it could bring.

But Costa said there was only so much European partners could do. “One should be cautious” about the idea of sending patients abroad from Portugal, which has a land border only with already over-stretched Spain.

Regarding possible German aid, he said: “In everything Portugal has asked for, unfortunately they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses.”

Officials said the first phase of Portugal’s vaccination plan will be extended by around two months into April as delivery delays mean the country will receive just half the expected doses by March.

(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Larry King, Peter Graff)

Anger and grief as United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll nears 100,000

By Andrew MacAskill and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – As the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll approaches 100,000, grief-stricken relatives of the dead expressed anger at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the worst public health crisis in a century.

When the novel coronavirus, which first emerged in China in 2019, slid silently across the United Kingdom in March, Johnson initially said he was confident it could be sent packing in weeks.

But 98,531 deaths later, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official death toll – more than its civilian toll in World War Two and twice the number killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign, although the total population was lower then.

Behind the numbers there is grief and anger.

Jamie Brown’s 65-year-old father died at the end of March after it was suspected he contracted COVID-19 while travelling on a train into London for work. At the time, the government was mulling a lockdown.

Told by medics to stay at home, he awoke days later with a tight chest, disorientated and nauseous, and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. He died from a cardiac arrest five minutes after arriving.

His son said the virus had damaged his lungs to the point where his heart gave up. He was a month away from retirement. “For me, it has been terrifying and harrowing to see everything that you hope for taken away. He will never be at my wedding; he will never meet any grandkids,” Brown told Reuters.

“Then, you watch the death toll rising whilst ministers pat themselves on the back and tell you what a good job they have done. It changes very quickly from a personal to a collective grief.”

Some scientists and opposition politicians say Johnson acted too slowly to stop the spread of the virus and then bungled both the government’s strategy and execution of its response.

Johnson has resisted calls for an inquiry into the handling of the crisis and ministers say that while they have not got everything right, they were making decisions at speed and have among the best global vaccination programs.

The United Kingdom’s death toll – defined as those who die within 28 days of a positive test – rose to 98,531 on Monday. The toll has risen by an average of over 1,000 per day for the past seven days.

‘JUST UNFORGIVABLE’ RESPONSE

In a series of investigations, Reuters has reported how the British government made several errors: it was slow to spot the infections arriving, it was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected hospital patients into care homes.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March that 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome. Soon after, a worst-case scenario prepared by government scientific advisers put the possible death toll at 50,000.

Many of the bereaved are angry and want an immediate public inquiry to learn lessons from the government’s response.

Ranjith Chandrapala died in early May at the same hospital where he took passengers to and from on his bus.

His daughter, Leshie, said the 64-year-old was slim, healthy and had not missed a day of work driving buses in the last 10 years.

She said he was not issued with a face mask – she bought him one herself – and the passengers were not told to wear them.

“The government’s handling of the crisis has been negligent, it is just unforgivable,” she said. “People in power just sent these guys over the line unprotected.”

Chandrapala stopped work on April 24 after developing COVID-19 symptoms. He died in intensive care 10 days later, with his family unable to say goodbye in person.

Early in the pandemic in March, one of England’s most senior doctors told the public that wearing a face mask could increase the risk of infection. The government made face coverings mandatory for passengers in England on June 15.

Nearly 11 months after the United Kingdom recorded its first death, some British hospitals look like a “war zone”, Vallance said, as doctors and nurses battle more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that scientists fear could be more deadly.

On the COVID-19 frontline, patients and medics are fighting for life.

Joy Halliday, a consultant in intensive care and acute medicine at Milton Keynes University Hospital, said it was “truly heartbreaking” for staff to see so many patients die.

“(Patients) deteriorate very, very quickly, and they go from talking to you and looking actually very well, to 20 minutes later no longer talking to you, to a further 20 minutes later no longer being alive,” she said.

“That is incredibly difficult for everyone.”

(Writing by Paul Sandle; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)

UK police break up COVID rule-breaching wedding with 150 guests

LONDON (Reuters) – British police said on Friday they had broken up a wedding with about 150 guests in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules, which only allow six people to attend.

Weddings are currently supposed to take place only under “exceptional circumstances”.

However, officers found a large gathering in Stamford Hill, in north London, with the windows covered to stop people seeing inside. The organizer of the wedding could be fined up to 10,000 pounds ($13,700), and five others were issued 200-pound penalties.

The police had initially reported that some 400 people had attended the wedding. An investigation has been launched to identify further offences.

“This was a completely unacceptable breach of the law,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Marcus Barnett. “People across the country are making sacrifices by cancelling or postponing weddings and other celebrations, and there is no excuse for this type of behavior.”

The wedding took place at the Yesodey Hatorah Girls School, which serves Haredi Jewish families in the area, home to the biggest Orthodox Jewish community in Europe.

“We are absolutely horrified about last night’s event and condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” the school said in a statement. An outside organization was responsible for letting out its hall and it had no knowledge of the wedding, the school added.

Coronavirus cases have soared in Britain since the end of last year following the outbreak of a new, more contagious variant of the virus, which has led to the imposition of lockdowns across the United Kingdom.

The number of daily cases has fallen from a high of almost 70,000 on Jan. 8 to around 40,000 in recent days, but authorities are concerned that too many people are breaking the rules, meaning the virus keeps spreading.

On Thursday, British interior minister Priti Patel said those who broke lockdown restrictions faced punishment by police and announced a new 800-pound fine for those who attended house parties.

($1 = 0.7320 pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden; additional reporting by James Davey, editing by William James and Gareth Jones)